George Sfondeles, 63, family man and business owner known for helping those down on their luck
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter/Twitter: @suntimesobits March 8, 2013 9:02PM
Mr. George Sfondeles, 63, Obit photo. | Provided Photo
Updated: April 10, 2013 6:18AM
The man had become the kind of bum the other bums picked on.
He’d arrived in Chicago from Poland, young and strong, ready to roll up his sleeves and make a living. But things weren’t going well any longer. He was older now, and construction jobs were drying up. His wife, still back home in Poland, wasn’t sure she wanted to stay married. He’d started drinking heavily.
Enter George Sfondeles.
Mr. Sfondeles could have just ignored the man, one of the many day laborers he welcomed at his gas station, as they waited for construction foremen to come and offer them jobs. But Mr. Sfondeles could see things were getting dangerous — too many drinks, and a cold night outdoors, and the man might wind up on a table at the Medical Examiner’s.
Mr. Sfondeles helped collect money to buy him a plane ticket to Poland, so he could return home and reconnect with his family, and, perhaps, find a fresh start.
Today, that man is “totally sober, he’s living with his children, and he’s fine,” said Mr. Sfondeles’ daughter, Joanne.
It was another good deed in a life that brimmed with them. For 15 years, Mr. Sfondeles volunteered with a Greek Orthodox church league, coaching hundreds of boys on the game of basketball.
A big basketball fan, Mr. Sfondeles had season tickets for the Chicago Bulls, back when Michael Jordan was up in the air more than he was planted on the floor. But Bulls games didn’t matter when there were recitals to attend by his girls, Kathy, Joanne, and Tina, a Chicago Sun-Times reporter.
“He missed some of the playoffs because of our ballet recitals,” said Tina Sfondeles. “He would miss the Bulls games — a game he loves — to see us dance for three minutes each.”
Thirty-four years after they married, he still treated his wife, Elizabeth, like they were on their honeymoon. A few days ago, he ran out to the store at midnight, so she could sweeten her tea to her liking. “He went and bought for me, Equal, because I didn’t want a Sweet’N Low,” said Elizabeth Sfondeles. “For 34 years, we never, never fought.”
The man she called her “angel” died Thursday at their Lemont home. He was 63.
Mr. Sfondeles’ family is taking comfort in the eight years of retirement he enjoyed after experiencing a frightening seizure from AVM (arteriovenous malformation), a condition marked by tangled blood vessels in the brain.
In 2005, after 28 years in operation, he and his brother, Jim, sold their Shell station at Belmont and Milwaukee. Mr. Sfondeles was able to travel more. He was enjoying a swim in the turquoise Caribbean off St. Thomas, when a little girl pointed out a man in the water with a blue face.
It was Mr. Sfondeles. Luckily, a doctor from New York was vacationing on the beach. He performed CPR, and his family medivaced him to a Chicago hospital. He was in an induced coma for a month, while his condition improved.
“The day he got out of the hospital was the day he went to my college graduation,” Tina Sfondeles said. “It was so important for him to see Joanne and I graduate that he went straight from a monthlong hospital stay right to the graduation ceremony.”
Hundreds of people — from Lemont; from the Greek-American community; from his college days, and the sports programs he coached—rallied to help him and his family, said a friend, Andrew Leith.
A new chapter began. Instead of rising early to work at the gas station, he was able to relax with his family and reconnect with friends.
“We got eight years, because of a little girl, and a doctor in New York,” Tina Sfondeles said. “We had him full-time at home.”
And, “he treated us so perfectly,” she said.
“He was my best friend,” said Joanne. “He was everything that I aspired to be — patient, and kind. He never yelled; he never swore. . . .there was nothing that I could not tell him. He was literally my best friend in the world.”
Born in Greece, Mr. Sfondeles and his family emigrated from the town of Achladokambos to Chicago. His parents, Lambrene and John, became caregivers for Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church, then at 7351 S. Stony Island.
A young George swept and cleaned, uncomplainingly scraping up the candle wax that accompanies the pageantry of Greek Orthodox services. “There were times that he was there for 10, 15 hours” in a day, said Father Byron Papanikolaou, pastor emeritus of the church, now located in Palos Hills. In grade school, he was in charge of 70 altar boys, the pastor said.
Young George and his friend, John Latsoudis, used to climb to the church roof and gaze at the Chicago skyline, and talk, sometimes for hours, about the White Sox. George liked a third baseman, Pete Ward.
He attended South Shore High School, and graduated from UIC, where he studied physical education, and pitched on the baseball team.
He and his brother bought the gas station, where he noticed a worker named Elizabeth, a Polish beauty. They wed and created a home with Greek and Polish traditions. One night, dinner was pastitsio. The next, it might be pierogi.
The gas station was a center of the neighborhood. He stocked it with Polish newspapers, magazines and paczki. “People in Poland knew about the gas station before the Sears Tower,” Tina Sfondeles said. “They knew it was where they could find jobs, connections; a place to make money to send their families.”
If the kids he coached at sports were hard up for money, he’d offer them work at the gas station, even ferrying them to the Northwest Side.
“Every day when I came home, he would wait for me to eat dinner together,” said his daughter, Kathy. “And we would watch basketball, baseball or an old TV show together, and he’d always bring up trivia—‘Did you know this guy hit 20 home runs?’ ”
Mr. Sfondeles had a fondness for Greek figs, and walnuts. “He would say, ‘if you go to Greece, bring me back some figs,’ ’’ Latsoudis said. He could open them without a nutcracker, by squeezing two walnuts together in his hands.
Some of his favorite times were family trips to Hawaii, Lake Tahoe and Florida. “He took us to Greece in 1997. He was so proud to show us the home he grew up in, and the olive trees his family owned,” Tina Sfondeles said.
Mr. Sfondeles is also survived by his sister, Eleftheria “Liberty” Dinos. Visitation is 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Chapel Hill Garden South Funeral Home, 11333 S. Central Ave., Oak Lawn. His funeral service is at 10 a.m. Monday at Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church, 11025 S. Roberts Rd., Palos Hills.